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Why Free Content Isn't a Sustainable Business

On parasites, hosts and infiltrating walled gardens.


Tony Silber By Tony Silber
02/20/2009 -14:06 PM






Fifteen years ago I bought the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and USA Today every day. Now I just read them online. I subscribed to a slew of magazines, like The New Yorker, Newsweek, American Heritage, National Geographic. Now I read them and many others online.

Why not? It's free. And I'm just not one of those people who needs to have the experience of a magazine or newspaper in print. I like content, not form.

And because my behavior is like that of tens of millions of other people, the media industry is in turmoil. You can't overstate it: The newspaper industry's days are numbered. And many magazines won't be able to survive the new world of free online content.

Consequently, journalism itself is endangered. Because even if journalists themselves are generally underpaid, running a news business committed to quality coverage, to comprehensive work, to investigation and to a skeptical, disinterested product is expensive.

That's why all the Web ‘visionaries' who say content needs to be free are wrong. It's clear that the business model of charging for your print product and posting all your content online for free makes no sense. It won't sustain. Every journalist should be concerned.

I read Walter Isaacson's report on "How to Save Your Newspaper" and I read Steve Brill's plan for micropayments. Isaacson makes an analogy to EZ Pass and Brill cites how iTunes has changed the economics of the music industry. As a non-visionary, I can't see how today's online media world—with its ubiquitous cross-linking, its one-person blogs enjoying equal footing with the huge newspaper sites, its content aggregation sites—would work if paid access were the norm. Maybe it wouldn't.

But it's fascinating how rigid the conventional wisdom has become. "Walled gardens," are old-school. Isaacson and Brill are fighting the fight of 1997. And Slate's Jack Shafer says most magazine and newspaper content isn't strong enough to charge for.

But the more I think about it, the more I conclude the Web sites that rely for their traffic on the reporting of others are parasites. They rely on a host body for sustenance and, in doing so, they harm the host. To the point, as in the case of the newspaper industry, that the host dies.

The coming conventional wisdom will be that some mechanism for paid content is necessary for the survival of journalism. But it won't become conventional until enough media companies die.

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